Book Review: The Good Pope

With the 50th anniversary of Vatican Council II just around the corner, now seems an appropriate time to re-examine the council and the figures who led it. (Indeed, with the Year of Faith, the Holy Father has invited us to do just that.) So it was with great interest that I read  The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church — The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II by Greg Tobin.

Unfortunately, anyone looking for a  thorough  treatment of either Bl. John XXIII or Vatican Council II will be  disappointed in  The Good Pope. Mr. Tobin has an almost myopic interest in the political, eschewing the theological or spiritual significance of either John XXIII or the council, and his book is the poorer for it.

Anyone unfamiliar with the “Good Pope” will find some interesting information and anecdotes. Tobin does a good job of portraying Angelo’s humble beginnings and steady rise through the Church’s ranks, focusing on his diplomatic appointments in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and France. Yet of all these instances in the pope’s life it was the account of John XXIII’s passing that I found especially moving. Surrounded by family and staff, the pope endured great pain in his final days, the result of the stomach cancer which took his life. Speaking to those present before receiving the Last Rites he was heard to say

The secret of my ministry is that crucifix you see opposite my bed. It’s there so that I can see it in my first waking moments and before going to sleep. It’s there, also, so that I can talk to it during the long evening hours. Look at it, see it as I see it. Those open arms have been the program of my pontificate: they say that Christ died for all, for all. No one is excluded from his love, from his forgiveness…

Unfortunately this probing of John’s spirituality comes only at the end of his life. While providing a good overview of some of the pope’s encyclicals, Mr. Tobin picks and chooses only those with a focus on political or social issues. I would have enjoyed seeing a treatment of Paenitentiam Agere (John XXIII’s encyclical on penance) or Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia (on St. Jean Vianny and the priesthood). Looking at these lesser-known encyclicals would have helped fill in some of the gaps of John’s faith.

This focus on the political extends to the chapters on Vatican Council II; Mr. Tobin seems less interested with the results of the council than with the maneuverings of the various personalities and factions at the council. (I don’t recall any direct quotes from the council documents, but plenty from diaries and interviews of those in attendance.) This leaves the impression that the council was less about the end results than about the feelings and intrigues of its participants. This does little to help readers understand the council’s impact on the life of the Church and subsequent reforms.

Another major shortcoming is the lack of direct reference to Mr. Tobin’s sources. While a list of sources is provided at the end of the book, no inline citations or footnotes are provided. An especially egregious example is on page 236, in which an unidentified source claims that progressive forces at the council “correctly deduced that John wanted a wholesale reform.” This unattributed assertion is not backed with any evidence and serves only to bolster Mr. Tobin’s own conclusions.

The Good Pope is, ultimately, less than the sum of its parts, failing as both biography and history. While it contains some interesting tidbits, in the end I can’t say that I understand either John XXIII or Vatican Council II any better. Given the wide selection of books about the council and the Good Pope, I cannot recommend this title to anyone wanting more than a political view of either.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from TLC Book Tours.

Original image by Pivari / WikiCommons

Book Review: Forming Intentional Disciples

Here’s the short version of this review: If you have any interest in the challenges facing catechists and evangelists in the Church today, stop reading this review and get a copy of Forming Intentional Disciples. You will not be disappointed.

For those of you that still need convincing, read on…

Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus  by Sherry Weddell is the most important book I’ve read this year. That is not exaggeration or hyperbole, but a testament to the research, experience, and insight Weddell brings to the question of evangelization and catechesis in the Church today. Weddell’s book is a synthesis of every deep conversation about catechesis and evangelization I’ve had with my local and national colleagues for the past four years.

Weddell begins with a review of the data that should be familiar to all of us: decreasing Mass attendance, Catholics leaving the Church for Protestant communities, and a general “disengagement” from the life of the parish by many of the faithful. But she doesn’t just leave us with cold, hard facts. Thanks to her work with parishes across the  country  Weddell is also able to weave compelling anecdotes that put a human face on the crisis. Most surprising to me were the number of people who have left the Catholic Church not because they were failing to  moving closer to Christ but  because, as they more fully embraced their call to discipleship, they had no one in their parishes to support them or who understood the sudden fire that had been lit in them. That the Church is losing both unengaged and highly motivated members — leaking from both ends, as it were — should alarm all of us.

Weddell’s overarching question in reviewing the data and stories is this: How many of our parishioners are truly disciples of Jesus Christ? How many are committed to living a life of faith in an intentional way? Her answer, based on conversations with pastors and parish staff across the country, is that about 5% of Catholics can be described as “intentional disciples.” This is shockingly low. And unfortunately many of the leaders in our parishes are not included in that figure. Some of the most heartbreaking stories in the book are the anonymous parish leaders — presumably DREs, youth ministers, and pastoral council members — who describe themselves as having no active relationship with God.

Thankfully Weddell doesn’t tread old arguments by trying to place the blame for this crisis on any particular group within the Church. Rather, she identifies as a major contributing factor the lack of a “normal” understanding of what it means to be a disciple:

As we listened to the spiritual experiences of tens of thousands of Catholics, we began to grasp that many, if not a majority of, Catholics don’t know what “normal” Christianity looks like. I believe that one reason for this is the selective silence about the call to discipleship that pervades many parishes. Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about the first journey – their relationship with God – except in confession or spiritual direction. This attitude is so pervasive in Catholic communities that we have started to call it the culture of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Weddell also decries the poor sacramental preparation received by both children and candidates in the RCIA. Weddell delves into the Church’s theology of grace to demonstrate that we are not preparing people to  fruitfully  receive the sacraments. A tendency to focus on the  validity  of the sacraments has blinded us to the need for the recipients to receive the grace imparted by the sacraments and allow it to flourish in their lives. Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church Weddell skillfully indicts catechists who operate with a “the sacrament will take care of it” attitude towards the spiritual lives of those in their care.

Weddell goes on to offer a framework for understanding the  process  by which a person becomes an  authentic  disciple of Jesus Christ. This was, for me, the most important part of the book, since it is the pivot on which evangelization and catechesis turn. Through her work with the Catherine of Siena Institute Weddell has  identified  five “thresholds” on the path to  discipleship:

  1. Trust
  2. Curiosity
  3. Openness
  4. Seeking
  5. Intentional Discipleship

Each describes the foundational attitude the individual must have before they are able to progress through the stage.  Of course, this framework would be of little use without suggestions for how to guide  individuals  through this journey of faith. Fortunately, Weddell gives us some very concrete ways that we can walk with people at these different stages. For instance, Weddell challenges Church leaders to break the silence in our parishes concerning  discipleship:

Until discipleship and conversion become a normative part of parish life, many [people] will walk in and out of our parishes untouched, and many Catholics who are disciples will continue to feel that they need to hide or minimize their newly awakened personal faith in front of other Catholics. The first thing that must be done is to deliberately and persistently break the code of silence if it is in place. The Catholic norm of silence about a relationship with God, about Jesus Christ and his story, about our own stories of following Christ, and about the need for everyone to decide whether or not he or she will follow as a disciple is stifling the emergence of a culture of discipleship and all that flows from it. One of the most powerful ways to challenge the silence is by making a safe place for others to talk about their own lived relationship with God.

Weddell offers similar advice for each of the thresholds of discipleship; parish staffs would do well to read these chapters carefully and discuss how the suggestions might be implemented in thir local communities.

Forming Intentional Disciples is a book that has appeared at preciously the moment it is needed in the life of the Church. I am indebted to Sherry Weddell for her work in  writing  it, and I believe every bishop, pastor, evangelist, and catechetical leader should have a copy and study it carefully. I know I will be.

Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / FlickrCC

Review: New Online Catechism of the Catholic Church

In case you missed it last week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has released a new online version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). This is something that has been a desperate need — while there have been work-arounds for making a robust online catechism available, having an official version from the bishops is a very positive step forward in the USCCB’s social media and technology initiatives. Is this version everything we could have hoped? No, but it’s pretty good. Here’s some specifics.


The online Catechism has a simple layout: a table of contents on the left, hyper-linked to the headings. It’s a pretty long list; a collapsible menu structure may have been preferable, but also would have made it harder to browse to find the section you’re looking for. A nice touch includes alphabetical links to sections in the Glossary and Index.

On the right side of the screen is the text of the Catechism itself. It’s wide enough to be readable without onerous amounts of scrolling. The headers and paragraph numbers are set off from the text and in bold type, so they are easy to scan. All in all it’s a very readable presentation of the text.

Of course there is room for improvement. I know it would have added work, but I would have loved to have seen the footnotes hyper-linked to their respective texts. At the very least the biblical citations should link to appropriate section of the USCCB’s online New American Bible — this would go a long way towards making a true online reference.

Another major drawback is that, from what I can tell, there is no easy way to link to specific sections of the Catechism. Browsing through the Table of Contents doesn’t change the URL. You can right-click and copy the URL from the links in the Table of Contents, but that only takes you to the text of that particular section without the search bar or Table of Contents. Bloggers and other online evangelists will find it difficult to point people to specific citations; hopefully this feature will be added in a future update.


The most important aspect of the online Catechism is its search capability. How does it work? Remarkably well! The search bar is always accessible at the top of the page and returns searches quickly. Ten search results are returned on the right, with two lines from the revelant  paragraph  displayed. Clicking on the title of the paragraph brings a popup with the whole paragraph and a “read more” link to the paragraph within the Catechism.

The one drawback is that the search only recognizes whole words; “episco” won’t find any matches, but “episcopal” will. I hope this will be updated in a future version so that we can search for word roots as well as whole words. But that’s a pretty minor quibble.


Of course, in today’s day and age, you have to develop for mobile. I checked out the online Catechism on my Motorola Droid Pro and my office’s iPad. The phone worked better than I expected. I oriented the phone in landscape and had to zoom into the right side in order to read the text comfortably, but not so much that it cropped the text on the left or right. The book looks great on the iPad in portrait but especially in landscape. I suspect that this will become my favorite way to access the site.

That having been said, the fact that the Catechism  still isn’t available as a standalone app is maddeningly frustrating,  especially  for those of us who live and minister in rural dioceses. When I’m in Quincy — one of the major population centers of our diocese — I have no 3G connection (thanks to Verizon’s less than stellar coverage) and so I have no way to access the Catechism in a parish unless they have wi-fi (which very few parishes do). There is a  huge need for a completely downloadable Catechism app for iOS and Android that contains the layout and search capability of the online version. The new online Catechism can only be viewed as a stop-gap  measure  until such an app is available and I hope that the USCCB is working diligently and swiftly to make that happen.

Bottom Line

When I heard last month that the USCCB would be launching a new online Catechism of the Catholic Church (and has plans to launch the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults) I was skeptical. I intentionally kept my expectations low so as not to be disappointed. Thankfully the USCCB has given a great resource that, while not perfect, goes a long way towards making the Catechism more accessible and user-friendly. A Catechism and New American Bible app — or better yet, making those texts available to app developers — must be the next step to truly make these foundational documents available to a 21st century audience.

Book Review: The Catholics Next Door: Adventures in Imperfect Living

There’s a certain genre of Catholic writing that’s never particularly appealed to me. I’m not sure what to call it, but it encompasses parenting books and marriage advice, Catholic living and holiness “how-to”s.

The defining characteristic of these books tends to be a hoity-toity know-it-all attitude that exalts one way of parenting or spirituality as “the way” above all others, without regard to the rich diversity of the Church’s history and practice.

The Catholics Next Door is not that type of book.

In fact Greg and Jennifer Willits go out of their way to assure readers that they don’t have all the answers, that they are just like the rest of us poor schlubs trying to honor God while making a living, raising a family, and attending to the rest of life’s demands. But, as they point out, there is holiness in that imperfection. Call it a “spirituality of the screwups”:

In a way it helps to know we’re not the only screwups in this world. I suspect that many of the seemingly perfect parents sitting in the pew ahead of us at church, the ones with the angelic children, are screwups as well. I don’t know why that helps me, but it does.

It’s good to remind ourselves, especially when we’re ready to throttle a kid who just spray-painted a brand new set of golf clubs, that you were a screwup before your kid was. And you still are. But you’re getting better, with the help of God.

The Willits cover a wide range of topics in the book, from living with our neighbors to natural family planning, using technology for evangelization to the Eucharist. The connecting thread is a relentless focus on Christian living in the messiness and uncertainties of modern life. Jennifer and Greg take turns offering their own perspectives in short 2-3 page sections. This “he said, she said” style could have felt forced or trite, but the sections transition smoothly into each other and never feel jarring or forced. This is a testament both to their writing and to each author’s unique and engaging voice.

I especially appreciated their encouragement and advice on family prayer. They recount their own travails in praying with their five children (leading to the chapter’s title: “Family-Rosary Wrestling”) and, as with the rest of the book, assure parents that being a “work in progress” is nothing to be ashamed of: “There will be victories and head-smacking embarrassments. But as long as we maintain our focus on Christ, stay close to him in the  sacraments, and remain loyal to the teachings of our faith to the best of our abilities, we will be equipped to handle any  challenge  Gods wants to put before us.”

The Catholics Next Door  is a funny, inspiring, and down-to-earth book on Christian living. I recommend it to imperfect Christians everywhere.

Book Review: Wish You Were Here

Amy Welborn‘s new memoir, Wish You Were Here: Travels Through Loss and Hope, details the aftermath of her husband Michael‘s sudden death in February of 2009 — specifically, the trip she took with her daughter and two young sons to Sicily a few months after. Part travel diary, part spiritual memoir, part reflection on grief, Wish You Were Here  resonated deeply with me and my own experiences following the death of my father shortly before my senior year of college.

Welborn writes with honesty about her grief. She details her anger, her fear, and her sadness. But these details don’t stand as mere self-pity; she makes numerous parallels between her spiritual journey through grief and the physical journey she undertakes with her family — between the life-giving destruction of Mt. Edna and the  illusory  nature of death; watching her son build sandcastles on the Italian beach and her attempt to begin building a new life; between regrets of things unsaid and undone and seeking to “live in the now” an ocean away.

And yet, at it’s core, Wish You Were Here is a hopeful and faith-filled book. If there is a theological center — the theme Welborn comes to several times — it is her husband’s admonition to live for God Alone:

I would do that whiny thing and I would ask him, Do I make you happy?, and he would sigh and say that he would be in bad shape indeed if his happiness depended on my existence. Not because he wasn’t happy now, but because he needed to be “happy” — at peace — whether I was around or not, no matter if he liked his job or not, or whatever was going on or whoever was around him. He’d make his case as he always did that our happiness shouldn’t depend on anything except God. I should be able to be happy, he’d say, even you died tomorrow. He’d take his eyes off the television and look at me.

And so should you.

The book is, in many ways, the chronicle of her attempts to do just that in the immediate aftermath of Michael’s death. Her openness about this struggle is refreshing in the face of a culture that seeks to shield us from death and to deny the reality that we all must one day die.

Wish You Were Here is a delightful, funny, heart-breaking book. I heartily recommend it.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.

Original photo by DrPantzo/flickrCC

Book Review: If Your Mind Wanders at Mass

Shortly before Christmas I participated in a Secret Santa exchange on my favorite book cataloging site, LibraryThing. I can only assume that the administrators of the exchange picked people due to common interests,  because  I was paired with a lovely young Catholic woman who picked out a copy of Thomas Howard’s If Your Mind Wanders at Mass for me.

The book is deceptively short at 124 pages, but filled with wonderful reflections on liturgical participation, the parts of the Mass, and the importance of corporate worship. Dr. Howard writes with depth, but doesn’t rely on lofty or inaccessible theological language. For instance, take this passage on “assisting at” Mass:

“Assist at”: that is an old and very accurate way of referring to our attendance at Mass. We are not spectators. We are not an audience. We are the congregation, brought together (congregated) to do something — all of us, not solely the priest up there at the altar. Every one of us who wants to be numbered among “the faithful” is, by virtue of his baptism, made to be a sharer in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The priest himself, by virtue of his ordination, participates in that priesthood in a particular way. He is “ordained” to preside at the Lord’s Table, that is, to be in the place of Jesus Christ, who instituted this sacrament when he broke the bread and blessed the cup at the Last Supper. But we the faithful share in the action by uniting ourselves to the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ which is made present in the Mass, and by offering our adoration, and our very selves, and all our work and our joys and our sufferings, and our aspirations, to God as the particular things which we alone can offer. No one else can offer me to the Lord. This is an act which I alone can carry out.

The rest of the book is written in the same beautiful, reflective style. This isn’t a “how-to” book on the Mass so much as an extended mystagogy on the Eucharist.

The only thing keeping me from fully recommending the book is it’s copyright date — 1995 — which means that it references the older translation of the Roman Missal. I hope that Dr. Howard or his editor will take the time to update the book with the new English translation recently implemented across the globe.

Even with that caveat, the quality of the reflections are enough to merit their inclusion in any Catholic’s library.

Photo by Kevin Dooley/flickrCC.

Book Review: Quiet

Shy. Weak. Unmotivated.

These are some of the words that might come to mind when the average person thinks about introverts. Most of us think of them as immersed in their own worlds, unable to cope with social situations, and less likely to contribute ideas and innovation compared to their extroverted counterparts.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking seeks to explode these myths about introverts by examining the overlooked gifts that they bring to the office, the classroom, and society at large while understanding the underlying science behind introversion.

The book is composed of four parts. In the first, Cain begins, not with neuroscience or psychology, but culture. Specifically, she explores how modern western society came to embrace the “extrovert ideal.” This ideal embraces the outspoken, the fearless, and the gregarious over and above the quiet, the timid, and the intimate. Yet, as studies have shown, it is the gifts of introverts that actually lead to greater creativity and productivity in the workplace.

In the second part Cain explores the biology of introversion, highlighting research demonstrating that introverts actually process sensory input differently from extroverts. She also talks with experts researching the interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and environmental factors that may influence their  temperament.

The third part explores extroversion and  introversion  in other cultures, while the fourth gives concrete strategies for introverts and extroverts for dealing with the differences between the two. This includes a very interesting chapter on how parents can help their introverted children.

Cain includes an impressive amount of  interviews and anecdotes which serve to illustrate the research and studies she discusses. Cain talks with Harvard business students, an evangelical pastor, children, a beloved psychology professor, and others. These help to flesh out some of the drier academic content and put real human faces to the struggles introverts overcome.

If you have an introvert in your life you want to understand better — or if you are an introvert and want some strategies for living in an extrovert’s world — Quiet is the book for you.

Disclaimer: I recieved a free advance reader’s copy of this book from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.

Five Books for 2012

As I have done the past two years, I’d like to offer five book selections that I read the previous year to “jump start” your reading pile! These books come with my highest recommendation. (Of course, I’ve also been told that I have strange tastes, so your mileage will vary!)

  • Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, by Fr. James Martin, SJ (2011) – I can’t imagine anyone else having written this book. Fr. Martin’s signature wit and gift for bringing spiritual topics to the masses makes this not only a delightful read but a probing search for joy in the faith.
  • Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet, edited by Brandon Vogt (2011) – As I wrote in my full review, I fully expect the next generation of Catholic media creators to cite this book as a powerful inspiration. The essays contained within highlight some of the best Catholic work being done on the web.
  • Practice Makes Catholic, by Joe Paprocki (2011) – Joe’s latest book outlines the Catholic faith through five principles:  sacramentality, community, justice and the dignity of human life, reverence for Tradition, and a disposition towards faith and hope. A great read for any Catholic looking to deepen their practice of the faith.
  • Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, by David Lindley (2008) – I actually listened to the audio version of this book. It’s a fascinating exploration of the struggle to understand and accept the mathematics and implications of modern physics.
  • The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara (1987) – I first heard about this book when it was referenced as inspiration for the TV show Firefly. It is a fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg, with intriguing portraits of the major figures involved in that pivotal moment in US history.

If you have any recommendations that you’ve read in the past year, share them in the comments!

Photo by Thomas Hawk / FlickrCC


Book Review: The Catholic Briefcase

How Catholics live their lives in the public square is one of the hot button issues in the Church. For evidence one need only look at the recent USCCB General Assembly, where issues of religious freedom and political pressure where at the forefront of the conversation. And while these macro-level conversations are vital for a Church that does so much public good, I sometimes wonder if we aren’t missing the boat by failing to talk about how the average Catholic lives their faith when they aren’t at Sunday Mass.

Fortunately, Randy Hain’s The Catholic Briefcase: Tools for Integrating Faith and Work seeks to start that conversation, at least as it pertains to Catholics and their work lives. In doing so he draws both from his own experience as an executive seeking to integrate his faith with his work, and on the experience of other Catholics (through interviews included in the book) living their faith in the workplace.

Of course there are many obstacles to being a person of faith in the modern business world, from concerns about policies (official or unofficial) against talking about faith in the workplace, to uncertainty about the best way to broach faith topics, to incongruities between faith and business culture. Hain acknowledges each of these and offers gentle suggestions and tips for overcoming them. He also offers practical advice for nurturing a spiritual life as a busy professional, reflections on the relationship between love and work behavior, examples of good stewardship in the business place, and advice for managers and executives on the Christian understanding of leadership.

Each chapter includes several reflection questions, which makes this an ideal book for a small faith community or gathering of Catholic professionals. Hain also includes an excellent series of appendices with additional resources including recommended books and web sites, a œDaily Examen for Busy Business People,  and even a blueprint for starting a local Catholic business group. These resources will help people put the material from the book into practice. (Personally, I’m already seeing if there would be interest in a Catholic business group in our area.)

I would recommend The Catholic Briefcase for any Catholic professional interested in deepening their spiritual life and looking to integrate a Christian outlook in the business world.

Disclaimer: I received a free manuscript of this book from Ligouri Publications.

Book Review: Raised Right

Alisa Harris’ Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics and Learned to Start Living the Gospel is an interesting look into the evolving beliefs of young evangelicals raised by the now-aging members of the Religious Right and Moral Majority. The book charts Harris’ conversions from the fundamentalist Protestant religion of her youth to the triumphalist Republican politics of her adolescence to the more uncertain, searching faith of her early adulthood.

The book flits back and forth between different periods in Harris’ life, making it hard to construct a chronological narrative of how her outlook has evolved over time. It’s not until mid-way through the book that a real sense of that conversion emerges, after she enters a conservative christian college and encounters the hypocrisy of her peers and the emptiness of political maneuvering.

Harris is good at constructing a compelling narrative — each chapter includes clever anecdotes from her early life in religion and politics — but I would have liked a more nuanced look at the belief systems Harris has encountered during her life. Everything in the book is from her perspective, and the various systems of thought encountered are explained only in the most superficial way. While I recognize that this is a memoir and not a more systematic treatment of American politics and religion, a little more depth would have added context to her story.

I would also have been interested to hear if and how her parents’ outlooks have changed. In the beginning of the book they sound rigid and inflexible in their beliefs, yet by the end of the book Harris seems to indicate that their stances have softened, if not as radically as hers.

Raised Right is a quick, easy read for anyone interested in learning more about the outlook of young evangelicals seeking to move beyond the easy answers of partisan politics towards a more Gospel-based means of living in the world.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.